STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

 1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education? 

Steps to HSC Success #MTM2016

success

This blog post is a collection of tweets from the 2016 Meet the Markers. The event had the Twitter hashtag of #MTM2016. I wanted to do a Storify but Storify isn’t working so hence this blog post. MTM2016 is a teacher professional learning event where teachers learn how HSC science exams are marked and how to teach students to maximise their HSC achievement

I wasn’t personally at MTM2016 due to a school event, but was able to learn from it via Twitter. The power of social media.

Learning with real scientists

Earlier this year, I wrote a post on my goals for 2014. My goal #1 was  to keep science real by connecting my students with real scientists. We regularly hear that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) will be essential to our economic future and hence it is vital to engage all of our students in STEM. However, there are many statistics that our students are switched off from STEM. From surveys in my own school, many students say they do not want to pursue post-compulsory studies of science because they don’t know what kind of careers science will lead them to. Ask any student what a scientist does and they will most likely give a very narrow, stereotypical view. Like I said in my previous post, most students will know an accountant, a plumber, a builder, a lawyer, but they are very unlikely to know a scientist.

So for the past year I have gotten my school in a program run by the CSIRO called Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMIS). SMIS pairs a school with a practising scientist (or mathematician) who will work with students, teachers and schools on a range of activities from talks about science as a career to running lessons on specific content. My school’s partner scientist is Dr Melina Georgousakis, a scientist specialising in immunology and a government advisers on vaccinations. In a year she has done two general talks on what it’s like to be a scientist, one specific talk on how vaccinations work to Year 9s (really useful as it was held a week before students were scheduled to receive vaccinations) and a lesson on how the immune system works with Year 12 Biology students. My school were also lucky enough to have Dr Cameron Webb speak to them about research on mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases. Cameron even brought in a range of dead mosquitoes for students to examine under  the microscope. It is a great example of how scientists can work with schools to provide learning opportunities for students that would otherwise be difficult to organise.

Dr Melina explaining how the immune system works with Year 12 Biology students.

Dr Melina explaining how the immune system works with Year 12 Biology students.

Dr Cameron Webb sharing his work and life as a scientist with Year 9 students.

Dr Cameron Webb sharing his work and life as a scientist with Year 9 students.

Students examining mosquitoes under the microscope in a lesson with Dr Cameron Webb.

Students examining mosquitoes under the microscope in a lesson with Dr Cameron Webb.

While utilising social media and web conferencing tools are useful to connect students and scientists with ease, there is nothing like having a real scientist connect and work with students in the flesh. Since my school’s involvement with SMIS, our students are more aware of careers in science (as shown in our student evaluation surveys) with some students being inspired to work in the fields of our partner scientists. The SMIS program has done wonders in helping to lift the profile of science. It is vital that students can refer to real faces when they are talking about what scientists do and science as a career. It is also essential that students hear and see first-hand the diverse things that scientists do in their day-to-day jobs.

If you’re in an Australian school, I highly recommend contacting CSIRO and being involved in their SMIS program.

Science with gummy bears

Gummy bears are not only a delicious treat, they also have multiple uses in science. This term my year 9 class are completing a project called Project Mars. Project Mars is a joint project with the Powerhouse Museum where students can remotely control a Mars Rover to perform experiments on a recreated Martian surface to find out whether Mars could support life.

To collect and analyse the data from these experiments on the Martian surface, students need to learn about atoms and waves, and this is where gummy bears come in. Gummy bears have come in really handy for two experiments showing the properties of light.

(1) Gummy bears and laser experiment

Gummy bears can be used to show how light is absorbed, transmitted and reflected. This activity show why objects have different colours.

Students shined a red laser light onto red gummy bears and green gummy bears. The red light will transmit and reflect on the red gummy bears, but absorbed by the green gummy bears. Students then shined a green laser light onto red gummy bears and green gummy bears and compare the observations. This experiment makes the concept of absorption, transmission and reflection of light more real to students.

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(2) Gummy bear wave machine

I came across this experiment on YouTube. Gummy bears, skewers and duct tape is used to make a wave machine to demonstrate a range of properties of waves. I really like this experiment as it is a hands-on and visual way to show students properties of waves and works a lot better than skipping ropes and slinkys.

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Acting out the nitrogen cycle

I’ve always found the nitrogen cycle to be one of those concepts that students find difficult to understand. Not only are there so many unfamiliar terms and ideas (denitrifying bacteria, nitrogen fixation, different types of ammonia, etc), but students often think that the nitrogen cycle is linear, that all nitrogen atoms go around the cycle step by step. I often hear questions like “Where does the nitrogen cycle start?”

To challenge this misconception, I decided to play the nitrogen cycle game with my Year 9s this year. I first saw this activity in action from my student teacher, Smriti Mediratta, who is now a temporary teacher in my faculty. She adapted the activity from a range of websites such as this one.  All you have to do is to place station signs that show reservoirs of nitrogen and place 1 dice on each sign. Students then role play a nitrogen atom and follow the instructions on each sign. On their nitrogen cycle journey, they fill out a worksheet to show where they went in each step and how they got there.

Note that these resources have been created by Smriti so hat tip to her 🙂

During the activity, I heard one group say “We are going to soil again. We are always going to soil!” From this and the class discussion afterwards, it was evident that students understood that the nitrogen cycle is non-linear; that some nitrogen atoms might never go to all reservoirs and just go from one to another.

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I also found this activity to be effective in allowing students to physically act out the nitrogen cycle, which makes it more memorable than just reading a text and looking at a a diagram. If you are a science teacher, I highly recommend trying this activity with your students.

Running to read, write, listen and speak

Literacy in science has always been a huge focus for me. Not only is literacy a priority area for our school, but I like to be educating my students so they are young scientists and there’s nothing more important to a scientist than to be able to understand and communicate their ideas clearly.

I personally find reading and writing to be the easiest to integrate into high school science. However, listening and speaking are a little harder for me to embed. Just a few days ago I remembered a strategy called running dictation which I learnt from an English as a Second Language consultant a few years ago.

Running dictation is a game that students play in groups to practise their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The teacher puts a short passage somewhere in the classroom (in my case it was a passage on the atmosphere). Each group of students selects a reader and the rest are writers. The readers in each group need to run (or in my classroom, walk very fast as I don’t want any injures) to the passage, read it silently to themselves, remember as much as possible, run back to their team, recite what they remember to their team and the rest of the team writes it down. The first team that gets everything correct (the words, spelling, punctuation, etc) wins. You might think it’s a noisy game but because each team doesn’t want the others to hear and steal their work, they work very quietly. I did this with Year 8s the other day and they absolutely loved it. I like how it allows students the opportunities to work together as a team and speak about science.

Year 8 students in a running dictation activity

Year 8 students in a running dictation activity

I know running dictation isn’t new but I haven’t seen it used in science classes so I’d thought this blog might give other science teachers some ideas for literacy. I find that running dictation allows students to read, write listen and speak science in a fun way. It’s gets them up and moving and doesn’t make literacy seem like a drag like it sometimes is.

In future lessons I’m going to try some of these other ideas for running dictation to make it more challenging for my students.

Formative assessment with hexagons

Formative assessment is something I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on over the past few years. I’m so sick of just relying of end-of-topic exams to gauge what students have learnt. I want my students to continuously question how they are going and make changes to their learning accordingly. This is one of the reasons that my faculty has embarked on a Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) journey this year. One of the ways that many teachers using SOLO use to assess student learning is with SOLO hexagons.

SOLO hexagons involves the major concepts or ideas from a topic to be placed individually onto hexagons. Students then work individually or in groups to connect the hexagon concepts together and they must justify why they have made these connections. It is the justification where both the teacher and the student can assess the student’s learning. It is how students have connected the hexagons and their justification of WHY they have done it that way that allows their learning and thinking to then be assessed using the SOLO taxonomy (or not; the hexagon activity still works with no understanding of SOLO).

Here’s a video showing one way of using the SOLO hexagons in a UK science class.

Here’s an explanation of how to use SOLO hexagons from the SOLO guru, Pam Hooke.

I changed the hexagon activity slightly to suit the needs of my students. The picture shows the instructions that my students received.

instructions for hexagon activity

And here are the hexagons my students used (note that the hexagons were pre-cut for students and placed into zip lock bags with the above instruction card). My students worked in groups of 2 to 4. I used the SOLO hexagon generator to create the hexagons.

Here’s some samples of the hexagons my students made.

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Some things I noticed was that:

  • My students were all fantastic at explaining each hexagon concept
  • Some groups connected all the nervous system concepts and the endocrine system concepts together, showing they had an understanding that the nervous system and endocrine system worked together. However all the groups had the immune system concepts separate altogether. I did spend a lot of class time making it explicit that the nervous system and the endocrine system work together to control and coordinate the body. And while the students’ project was to make a fact sheet about how a particular disease/health issue affected the nervous system and the endocrine system, they seem to think that the immune system works on its own and is completely separate from the other systems.

From this activity we discussed their SOLO levels of understanding and how they can use their hexagon connections to see whether they were at a unistructural level, multistructural level, relational level or extended abstract level. Most students concluded they were at a relational level for most concepts and some thought they were extended abstract for some parts of the topic.

The SOLO hexagon activity is definitely something I will use again with my students. Now that they have done it once, the next time will run even better. Feedback from students was that they enjoyed talking about science with each other and that they learnt a lot from each other just by listening to what others had to say about each concept.